The Washington Post Sunday

Federal employee groups meet vaccine mandate with mix of praise and scorn

- JOE DAVIDSON joe.davidson@washpost.com

The reaction of federal employee organizati­ons to President Biden’s new vaccine mandate demonstrat­es it is not a simple yeaor-nay propositio­n.

A key element in his farreachin­g, aggressive assault against covid-19 is a requiremen­t for “all executive branch federal employees to be vaccinated,” he said Thursday, repeating “all” for emphasis. “And I’ve signed another executive order that will require federal contractor­s to do the same.”

Biden has the authority to order jabs for the 2.1 million civilian feds, noting, despite his repetition, “exceptions only as required by law.” But should he, and how should he, are issues raised by employee groups, whose reactions range from welcoming to flat-out opposing the mandate.

The reaction of federal worker groups, so far, mirrors that of American society. Those representi­ng higher-wage earners — who tend to be more vaccine positive — have come out strongly in favor of the mandate, while organizati­ons of lowerincom­e workers have been less likely to embrace it outright.

While the largest federal union, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), has “strongly encouraged” vaccinatio­ns for its members, it doesn’t want Biden’s executive order mandate to override collective bargaining prerogativ­es.

That order and another one on federal contractor­s override the previous White House position that employees and contractor­s must “attest to being fully vaccinated.” If they didn’t, they would face weekly or twice weekly coronaviru­s testing and restrictio­ns on work-related travel, in addition to masking and physical distancing requiremen­ts.

Union leaders generally don’t oppose the mandate, but “changes like this should be negotiated with our bargaining units where appropriat­e,” said AFGE President Everett Kelley. “Put simply, workers deserve a voice in their working conditions.”

The conditions include the consequenc­es of compliance and noncomplia­nce. Among the union’s questions: What disciplina­ry measures, from reprimand to firing, will employees who refuse vaccinatio­n face? Will those who get shots be required to stop teleworkin­g and instead report to the office? What vaccinatio­n proof, if any, is required?

Shortly before Biden spoke, the second-largest federal labor organizati­on, the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), urged employee vaccinatio­ns but did so in an indecisive statement reflecting a divide among its members. Acknowledg­ing Biden’s “legal right” to issue the order, NTEU President Tony Reardon said his “members, like American society at large, will have differing reactions to the new policy. Some employees will disagree. Others will welcome the additional security that comes with knowing that all of their coworkers are vaccinated.”

Other employee organizati­ons were more direct and affirmativ­e.

The Senior Executives Associatio­n, which represents top-level civil servants, “fully supports President Biden’s action,” said its president, Bob Corsi. The Profession­al Managers Associatio­n, representi­ng Internal Revenue Service supervisor­s, welcomed the vaccine mandate as “clear, consistent guidance to all employees. This is a welcome departure from the administra­tion’s still unrealized plan to test unvaccinat­ed employees,” said Executive Director Chad Hooper. The previous “testing plan exacerbate­d resource constraint­s, lacked effective coordinati­on between central management offices and agency leaders, and exposed managers to potential liability.”

It’s not surprising that organizati­ons representi­ng higher-level feds would endorse the policy, said Don Kettl, professor emeritus and former dean at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, because “lower-income individual­s, the evidence shows, tend to be more vaccine-resistant than upper-income folks.”

For any vaccine-hesitant employees, Hooper said they “should defer to the expertise of our peers across government. As we would expect our colleagues at the CDC and FDA to trust our tax expertise, so too we expect the IRS workforce to trust their medical expertise.”

That’s logic the Federal Law Enforcemen­t Officers Associatio­n (FLEOA) does not embrace.

Saying “vaccinatio­n should be promoted through education and encouragem­ent — not coercion,” FLEOA President Larry Cosme said the “government should trust its employees to make their own medical decision under consultati­on with their doctor, not mandated by their employer.”

This position overlooks the individual decisions that have led to a plague of the unvaccinat­ed, which literally threatens the health of the nation. Yet Cosme casts the mandate as the rogue.

“This executive order villainize­s employees for reasonable concerns and hesitancie­s and inserts the federal government into individual medical decisions,” he said. “People should not be made to feel uncomforta­ble for making a reasonable medical choice.”

Vaccinatio­n is the reasonable medical choice to combat a virus that has killed over 655,000 Americans and 4.6 million people worldwide, according to

Johns Hopkins University.

“This is not about freedom or personal choice,” Biden said. “It’s about protecting yourself and those around you — the people you work with, the people you care about, the people you love. My job as president is to protect all Americans.”

Vaccinatio­n is the choice of the Profession­al Services Council, which represents federal contractor­s.

“The vast majority of contractor­s would like to have a higher vaccinatio­n rate,” said David J. Berteau, the council’s president and CEO, but “it’s very hard for one company to go first” for competitiv­e reasons. The mandate provides a level playing field for contractin­g companies. “We believe the science is strong for vaccinatio­n,” he added. “We clearly support that,” with exceptions where necessary.

There are 3 million to 4 million individual contractor employees and about 300,000 contractin­g companies, including those with one employee, he estimated.

“At PSC, we do believe that the science is strong here,” Berteau added. “The way out of this pandemic is increased vaccinatio­ns.”

Along with Biden’s other requiremen­ts, including that all companies with more than 100 employees, together employing more than 80 million workers, mandate vaccines or weekly testing, his actions could have a major impact on combating the virus.

But for now, “we’re in a tough stretch,” Biden admitted, “and it could last for a while.”

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